Fine Gael, the Seanad, and the lingering death of democracy


I’ve been thinking about the Fine Gael image in support of Seanad abolition that shows a picture of Bjorn Borg celebrating. Borg demanded its withdrawal. The argument -if you can call it that- made by the image is that Sweden abolished its senate, therefore Ireland ought to do the same.

This is in keeping with claims made by the Fine Gael campaign team that imply some sort of best practice for the composition of political institutions in nation states. And the suggestion draws on the rather positive image Scandinavian countries enjoy in Ireland, on account of their relatively ample welfare state provisions, decent standards of living, and compelling TV dramas.

You can nearly hear the chains clanking in Fine Gael strategists’ brains: against the accusations that we, a party with a fascist past, are out to do away with democracy, we will illustrate that we are not, by showing that our proposals bring us into line with countries with a more progressive reputation. Sure, don’t the trade union beards and TASC and all be banging on about Scandinavia all the time?

Such approaches rely on an assurance that the people they are seeking to influence do not know a great deal about Sweden, or any other country with half-decent public services. Because in so far as such countries prove better places to live in than Ireland for the majority of society -and they are by no means perfect-, this is down to high levels of public ownership, highly progressive taxation, strong labour legislation, greater social equality and a far greater degree of social solidarity: all of this won, by the way, through militant labour struggles.

That is, the substantive basis for ‘happiness’ in Sweden has little to do with the formal structure of its political institutions, and a great deal to do with the material constitution of society.

Hence the arrogant cynicism of Fine Gael’s appeal to Scandinavian standards: Enda Kenny’s government is pursuing policies that tear up what meagre welfare state provision there is, strip away and run down public services with a view to outsourcing and privatisation, and usher even greater social inequality, deprivation and poverty.

But the party strongly suggests, in its images referring to Sweden and Denmark, that the abolition of the Seanad will, of itself, put Ireland on the road to social democracy. Naturally, the Labour Party has nothing to say about this.

The abolition of the Seanad referendum is just a gimmick to convey an illusion of popular sovereignty. With another vicious budget, it is intended to confer an aura of democratic legitimacy on a government destroying lives and wrecking futures in order to keep the financial system ticking over.

Fine Gael couldn’t give a toss whether there’s a second chamber or not, as long as they get away with keeping the rabble safely away from the things that matter.

And this is reflected in the image, which says “the proles know nothing about Sweden, but they probably have a vague sense that the Swedes are a great bunch of lads. Who do we get to make them think we’re at their level – Abba? The Swedish chef from the Muppets? Wait- I’ve got it..”

The arrogance, the contempt, the paucity of argument, are stark indeed.

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